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Review of McCarten Book on the Two Popes

Review of McCarten's Book on the Two Popes        Gerry O'Shea

Anthony McCarten, a distinguished  novelist and screenwriter from New Zealand, is best known for his celebration of the genius of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything , and  for highlighting the crucial importance of Winston Churchill's  eloquence in  defeating the Nazis in The Darkest Hour.  His latest work The Pope: Francis, Benedict and the Decision that Shook the World  attempts to explain the ramifications of having two popes, one in his early 80's and the other ten years older, both active within the narrow confines of the Vatican.

These two men, Joseph Ratzinger or as he is now titled emeritus Pope Benedict and  Jorge Bergoglio , Pope Francis, represent two different approaches to the Roman version of Christianity. Ratzinger is a brilliant German theologian, a rather dour and introverted academic with little pastoral experience, while Bergoglio, comes across as a  charismatic and fun-loving Argentinian whose idea of Christ's church centers not in teasing out the layers of meaning in various Catholic dogmas but  in working with the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires.

Shakespeare's line in Hamlet, "The apparel oft proclaims the man"  is relevant in considering the two church leaders. Benedict is a fastidious dresser with a preference for wearing  red velvet slippers and using a personalized perfume. On the other hand, Francis is reputed to be uncomfortable donning multi-colored  papal regalia, preferring a simple white cassock, and supposedly  using the same black shoes for twenty years.

McCarten explains clearly  the  major theological difference between the two leaders. Ratzinger is a conservative, devoted to the ageless wisdom he finds in the long traditions of the Catholic church. Above all, he rejects relativism which seeks to adapt church teaching to comport more closely with the complex human demands of modern life. For instance, for Benedict divorce is always inadmissible for Catholics and, in his eyes, that rule is written in stone and can never change. Again, he considers homosexual behavior an abomination and intrinsically corrupt so a different  humanistic perspective that views same-sex love as morally permissible and even praiseworthy can never have a place in Ratzinger's understanding of Christian morality.

Bergoglio is much less dogmatic in his beliefs. He advocates for allowing a divorced person in a steady new relationship to receive communion. Opponents quickly condemned him for veering from church practices which preclude a person in what they consider an adulterous relationship from participating at the Eucharistic table.

Not long after taking over the papacy he gave a clear indication of following a different path in dealing with the issue of gays in the church. "Who am I to judge," he asked. Everybody took this as a clear indication that he did not share the narrow opinion of his predecessor who repeatedly  characterized homosexuals as "objectively disordered."

McCarten does not focus much on the economic and social policies of his  subjects. In his two important encyclicals, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) and Laudato Si, in Praise of our Common Home, Francis is very critical of the capitalist system which he argues very cogently massively favors the rich and pays little attention to protecting God's creation. Benedict, true to his conservative principles, has much less to say about inequality  or the urgent moral mandate to protect the environment.

The author focuses a great deal on papal infallibility, the dogma passed by the First Vatican Council at the behest of Pius 1X  in 1870.  McCarten, in the weakest part of his book, wonders how the two popes, spoken of as infallible in matters relating to faith and morals, could differ so much on important ethical issues.

The Council that passed this edict has been justifiably criticized for a major display of hubris in ascribing infallibility to any human being in any circumstance or on any subject. Having said that, the ecclesial use of infallibility is very circumscribed; in fact, it was only used once since Pius 1X and that was when Pius X11  in 1950 asserted the dogma of Mary's Assumption into heaven.

Mr. McCarten seems confused about this subject as if infallibility involves some kind of a divine wind that touches the soul of every new pope, bringing a dose of incontrovertible heavenly wisdom. He rather whimsically wonders if an emeritus pope still has this special gift! And the author is mistaken when he declares that Benedict spoke infallibly  in condemning the gay lifestyle.

McCarten believes that they both carry a big "sin" from their past that has left a deep mark on their psyches. Ratzinger was Archbishop of Munich from 1977 to 1982. During that time  a priest named Fr. Hullermann was abusing children - and actually admitted he had a serious problem. He was sent for psychiatric help but was re-assigned after a short period of treatment - against the verbal and written advice of the psychiatrist. Ratzinger moved on to the Vatican in 1982 and denied he knew anything about the Hullermann case.

 That priest continued his depraved behavior in other parts of Germany  for 30 years after he first admitted abusing boys, and he wasn't finally stripped of his priestly faculties until 2010. What  responsibility did Ratzinger have in this case? What did he know and when did he know it?

Mr. McCarten credibly speculates that Benedict's decision to retire in the Vatican rather than in his homeland could well reflect a fear that he could be summoned to appear in a German court for not protecting children under his care in the early 80's.

Bergoglio was ordained a priest at age 33 in 1969. Four years later he was appointed provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina. He was in charge when the so-called Dirty War started in 1976. The raison d'etre given for that war by the military government,  supported by Washington, was that they wanted to end the power of Marxists and other left-wing extremists.

In reality, the ruling junta started a reign of terror where death squads hunted down political dissidents, including moderate trade unionists, writers and, indeed, anybody deemed to have vaguely socialist tendencies. A new group, identified as the Disappeared entered the local lexicon. It consisted of thousands of victims whose bodies were horribly tortured and then dumped in the ocean or in  secret graves by the government goons.

Bergoglio faced terrible dilemmas  every day. Hundreds of priests including two Jesuits were tortured; many were disappeared or executed. He knew some of the powerful generals and pleaded for the release of those who were imprisoned. He even said mass for General Videla, the top man in the government, urging him to ameliorate the prisoners' treatment in detention.

The two Jesuits bitterly criticized his stance with the military and never forgave his dalliance with evil, arguing that the Jesuits should have clearly and publicly condemned the slaughter of innocent people.

The future pope faced a devil's choice: criticize the junta and probably end up in prison or stay quiet and try to have a moderating voice inside the corrupt administration, but by doing this he must have known that he invited the serious charge of collaboration with the torturers.

 In a life and death situation, compromise is a poor option. McCarten believes - again credibly - that Francis' frequent statements that he is a sinner should not be understood as the general confession of imperfection by all humans but rather a direct reflection on the human consequences of his fearful choices during the dark days of the Dirty War.

The author describes clearly the weaknesses and strengths of both men, neither one of whom wanted the papacy. I look forward to the movie based on the book which is due out this year with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in the main parts.

 Perhaps Mr. McCarten should consider a sequel involving two other popes who had a massive influence on the 20th century: the ascetic and devout Pius X11 whose role in the Vatican during the Hitler years is very controversial, and his successor, the humble and well-grounded John XX111, whose spiritual vision insisted on opening the dusty ecclesiastical windows on all sides of the church and ushered in the epoch-changing Second Vatican Council.


Gerry O'Shea blogs at


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